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Fall 2001

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Must read
Book recommendations by retired faculty

compiled by Anne C. Hockenos

     Once again Scope has polled Skidmore’s retired professors for their book suggestions, whether for leisure reading, self-education, or gift giving. While faculty emeriti continue to read in their fields, many also delve widely into other disciplines, with perhaps a sprinkling of fiction.

     U.S. history seems a favorite topic of many respondents. David McCullough’s recent best-seller, John Adams, is recommended by Bill Brynteson, Gus Lumia, and Helga Doblin, who calls it “a ‘must’ for everybody.” Brynteson also likes McCullough’s Truman. And then there’s our eighteenth president, Ulysses S. Grant: Alberta Feynman (like Mark Twain) admires his autobiography of 1885, while J Honeywell prefers a 2001 biography.

     From histories to mysteries, with Third World famines and French watercolors in between, here are some of the best reads reported by Skidmore’s retired professors:

Daniel Balmuth, history (1958-98). He was on campus last winter for the inaugural lecture supported by the Daniel Balmuth Fund for Jewish Studies, established in his honor by former student David Moses ’84.

Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform, by Diane Ravitch (2000). “A convincing description of the often misguided efforts to change secondary education.”

William Brynteson, history (1964-92). Living in Sturgeon Bay, Wisc., he’s compiling the biography of his grandmother, who, in 1884, emigrated from Iceland to Washington Island in Lake Michigan.

Supreme Injustice, by Alan Derskowitz (2001). “A scathing account of the Supreme Court’s role in the Bush-Gore presidential election. A very scholarly account of how the five justices went against their previous judgments and opinions to give in to political partisanship. Derskowitz admits to his own partisanship but analyzes carefully the five justices’ histories on the court.”

Ode to a Banker, by Lindsey Davis (2001). “Davis writes excellent mysteries set in ancient Rome, on a par with Stephen Saylor’s mysteries in the same setting.”

The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand (2001). “A great study of the history of ideas, focusing on post– Civil War figures Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey. I loved every word of it! I studied all of them in an American intellectual history course at Yale when I was a junior and have welcomed the chance to get back to them.”

Denton Crocker, biology (1960-83). See “I Love Books,” above.

My Old Man and the Sea: A Father and Son Sail Around Cape Horn, by David Hayes and Daniel Hayes (1995). “A father and son build a 25-foot cutter together and then sail her from New London, Conn, through the Panama Canal and around the Horn, circumnavigating south America to return home.”

The Water in Between: A Journey at Sea, by Kevin Patterson (2000). “Recounts a voyage in a 37-foot ferrocement ketch from Victoria, British Columbia, to Tahiti and back. It is also a time of self-discovery and a meditation on adventure vs. home.”

A Unit of Water, a Unit of Time: Joel White’s Last Boat, by Douglas Whynott (1999). “Anyone with a love of boats will be drawn into this account of the art of boat building. The focus is the boat designer/builder Joel White (son of E.B. White), but the many people with special skills who are involved in boat building commercially are given their proper place. The book is filled with the sweet and pungent odor of wood chips, shavings, and sawdust.”

Doris Diller, nursing (1952-73). Recruited from Johns Hopkins Hospital to implement a National Cancer Institute–funded program to integrate cancer care into Skidmore’s nursing curriculum, Diller is one of twelve nurses profiled in It Took Courage, Compassion and Curiosity—Recollections and Writings of Leaders in Cancer Nursing, 1890-1970 (2001). She lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Big Stone Gap, by Adriana Trigani (2000). “Charming!”

The Alienist (1995) and The Angel of Darkness (1998), by Caleb Carr. “The setting for these two books is New York City—The Alienist takes place in the late 1800s, The Angel of Darkness in 1919. Both are mysteries and a bit tedious. Not happy books, but the reader does learn about crooked episodes that took place in earlier eras.”

Helga Doblin, foreign languages (1963-81). She and Skidmore mathematics professor Richard Speers, who formerly played chamber music together, now get together to read aloud in German on a regular basis.

John Adams, by David McCullough (2001). “A ‘must’ for everybody.”

Jews in Germany: From Roman Times to the Weimar Republic, by Nachum T. Gidal (1998). “Excellent and very informative.”

Alberta Lee Feynman, English (1954-76). She and her husband still own their home on North Broadway, near Skidmore’s campus.

Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson (1994). “A stunning autobiography by a Harvard University entomologist—probably well known by biologists, but a revelation to me.”

Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, by Ulysses Simpson Grant (1885, 1996) (2 vols.). “The British military historian who declared that the only thing Grant could do was fight was wrong. He could write! This work is a splendid piece of nineteenth-century American literature, written with a straightforward, classical lucidity that should be the envy of modern politicians and military figures. The work was justly admired by Mark Twain, who oversaw its printing.”

Warren Hockenos, philosophy (1962-92). Anticipating a fall trip to Berlin, Hockenos recently savored every page of the 635-page Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf, by Alfred Doblin (1929). “The story of a city, a time, and a Berliner. After serving time for the violent death of his girlfriend, Biberkopf returns to his old neighborhood, the Alexanderplatz, vowing to lead a decent life. But Berlin of the 1920s, booze, and his friends put him to the test. He wins some, loses others, but never concedes the struggle. A fine novel by an underappreciated writer.”

Late Victorian Holcausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, by Mike Davis (2001). “Davis argues that famines suffered by enormous populations in the equatorial zones in the late 1800s were not mere accidents of climatic conditions. The cause of needless human suffering was not drought but rather Victorian attitudes of indifference formed from the rhetoric of the free market and neo-Darwinism. Brilliantly argued and researched.”

J Honeywell, philosophy (1966-91). His home in the Adirondacks gives him easy access to hiking and cross-country skiing; last winter he traveled to Norway for more skiing.

Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, by Fred Anderson (2000). “A wide-ranging account of what Americans call the French and Indian War, covering not just the war but events leading up to it, events in Europe related to it, and subsequent events leading to the American Revolutionary War. Wonderfully written.”

Grant, by Jean Edward Smith (2001). “An excellent biography of General and President Grant. Not just a personal history but an account of his leadership during the Civil War and his presidency (1869-1877).”

Ruth Lakeway, music (1957-88). She participates in trips sponsored by the All American Senior Chorus—cruising the Rhine last year, touring Italy this fall. Also this fall she was expecting to participate in the International Congress of Voice Teachers in Helsinki, Finland.

An Equal Music, by Vikram Seth (1999). “Very enjoyable reading, especially for anyone interested in music. This is a romantic story of a pianist and a violinist, as their lives as professional performers are brought together and separated throughout their careers—very moving.”

Augustus Lumia, psychology (1971-98). Living in Wimberley, Texas, and recently appointed as an instructor of psychology at Southwest Texas University, he raises water lilies and Japanese koi.

Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives, by David Snowden (2001). “Wonderful! This book, written by a professor of neurology, is fully accessible to a general audience and should be read by anyone who wants to understand the normal aging process and learn why some people are more susceptible to dementia than others. His study of 678 elderly nuns—members of a teaching order and highly educated—has thus far shown that there is a positive relationship between aging successfully and diet, exercise, and an optimistic outlook; there also appears to be a clear correlation between high linguistic ability and a low rate of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Anthony Nazzaro, French (1962-92). He makes twice-yearly trips to southern France, where he makes a start on numerous watercolors, the completion of which occupies him during Saratoga’s long winters.

Grammars of Creation, by George Steiner (2001). “The Gifford Lectures of 1990, examining human creativity in the arts and distinguishing it from inventiveness in the sciences and technology. Steiner offers pithy observations and raises stimulating questions for the thoughtful reader: What will become of artistic creation in a world that has trivialized death and eroded solitude and the privacy of the inner life? What will be the future of the book after the Internet?”

Signac aquarelliste, by Martina Ferretti-Bocquillon (2001). “Lovers of nineteenth-century French art will enjoy this beautifully illustrated volume (text in French) surveying Paul Signac’s considerable output of watercolors spanning half a century (1883-1933). These works are seldom reproduced in the usual art books on the period, and they delight the eye with their freshness and individual style.”

David H. Porter, president and classics (1987-99). After teaching at Skidmore last spring, he plans to teach at Williams College for the next three years. He’s working on a long article on Horace’s Epistles, a project started many years ago. Also he has published shorter essays on Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf—“all of which grew out of my bibliomaniac tendencies,” he says. Last year Porter worked with Professor John Anzalone on an article about Erik Satie, scheduled for publication this winter in a French journal.

Ahab’s Wife: The Star-Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund (2000). “A rich, varied, moving novel that takes off from the very minimal mentions that Melville makes in Moby-Dick of Captain Ahab’s wife. I had not read Moby-Dick for many years, and one of the subsidiary benefits of Naslund’s book is that it sent me immediately back to Melville, which I enjoyed even more this time through. But Ahab’s Wife stands nicely on its own, and I recommend it heartily. Reading these two books also made me think what fun it would be to combine them with Homer’s Odyssey in a course on sea voyages! Someday, perhaps…”

Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernières (1994). “Another terrific book deserves the same adjectives: rich, varied, moving. Set in a small Greek island during World War II, it is alternately hilarious and deeply tragic. Like Ahab’s Wife, it’s a substantial book, and not always easy to read; but I found it more than worth the effort.”

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf (1999). “This shorter book is much easier going but quite wonderful. Though its material is often hard-hitting, the book as a whole poignantly captures the tone and character of contemporary life in a small American town, with its potential for both pettiness and goodness.”

Harry Prosch, philosophy (1962-87). Recovering from a broken ankle this winter, he found the Mortara story such a significant book that he read it from cover to cover twice.

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, by David I. Kertzer (1998). “In narrating the true story of the 1858 abduction of a six-year-old Jewish boy living in Bologna by representatives of the Pope, historian David Kertzer also tells the larger story of the conflict between the political and spiritual obligations of the Pope in preunified Italy. In fact, unification was hampered by the Pope’s insistence that his political power was essential to his work as spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Although a tragedy in the lives of the Mortara family, the seemingly inconsequential kidnapping of Edgardo becomes a telling event leading to the collapse of the Vatican as a secular power and the emergence of Italy as a modern nation. Kertzer’s narrative grabs and keeps your attention throughout.”

John Reed, education (1964-91). Cycling, skiing, and reading occupy Reed in retirement while wife Doretta Miller, a Skidmore professor of art, paints and teaches.

Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History, by James Carroll (2000). “A must-read for those concerned with the origins and history of anti-Semitism in Europe and the relationship of the Catholic Church and the Jews. A rare book for its honesty and the courage of the author.”

Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of the Empire in North America, by Fred Anderson (2000). “An excellent history of the Seven Years’ War, called the French and Indian War in the American colonies. Anderson argues that the grounds for the revolution leading to independence were laid in that war and that the British lost their North American empire because of a failure to establish sound policies for dealing with the colonists.”

Book lover Anne Hockenos is Scope’s associate editor.

I love books. Not necessarily first editions or finely bound volumes, but books in any condition. I love them for what’s in them.

by Denton Crocker

I love books. Not necessarily first editions or finely bound volumes, but books in any condition. I love them for what’s in them.

Over the years I accumulated perhaps 2,000 books. But people of my age begin to be burdened by things, so by selling some and giving others away, I have reduced my collection to about 900. I still have many biology books, especially in my area of expertise, the invertebrates. The rest have fluctuated around my changing interests (and abilities). For example, I now have fewer on camping and wilderness and more on sailing.

I’ve kept many books on World War II and the South Pacific (where I served in the war), and I have focused on the writings of James Norman Hall, who lived most of his adult life in Tahiti. I admire him, as I do Joseph Conrad, for being both a writer and a man of action. In addition to the Bounty trilogy written with Charles Nordhoff, one might sample his Faery Lands of the South Seas (1921). Hall served in the Escadrille Lafayette [made up of American pilots based in France who fought against the Jagdstaffeln of Germany before the U.S. entry into World War I], which experience he reported in his autobiography, My Island Home (1952), and novelized with Nordhoff in Falcons of France (1929).

In retirement, after my aging knees prevented backpacking trips, my wife, Jean-Marie, and I took up sailing. We had twelve glorious years on Lake George, but now I sail vicariously—through books about voyages in small boats. I own ninety-six of these accounts, all written by the voyagers themselves, and I am preparing an annotated bibliography. The most famous is Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World (1900). I dip into this at least once a year.

Other favorite oldies include Harry Pidgeon’s Around the World Single-handed (1933), Harold LaBorde’s An Ocean to Ourselves (1962), and Robert Manry’s Tinkerbelle (1966). Pidgeon’s and LaBorde’s boats were self-built. LaBorde sailed from Trinidad to England with his wife and their childhood friend. Manry, a copy editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, rebuilt a somewhat decayed 13.5-foot Old Town sloop and modified it for his seventy-eight-day voyage from Falmouth, Mass., to Falmouth, England. In my judgment, the most literary account among all those I have read is Richard Maury’s Saga of Cimba (1939). Reading again his description of a day in the passage from the Galapagos to the Marquesas, I am at sea with him; the events, the smells, the scenes of that day are mine.

Finally, to sense what it is like to have an enveloping love of boats and the sea, you can do no better than to turn to one of Skidmore’s own, former professor Barry Targan. Read his story “Joseph Champion” in the July/August 2000 Yankee magazine.

Denton Crocker is a professor emeritus of biology. He lives in Saratoga Springs.


© 2001 Skidmore College